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   Chapter 6 THE FOCUS OF WRATH

Mr. Crewe's Career -- Volume 3 By Winston Churchill Characters: 28751

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:02


Victoria, after leaving Euphrasia, made her way around the house towards Mr. Rangely, who was waiting in the runabout, her one desire for the moment being to escape. Before she had reached the sidewalk under the trees, Dr. Tredway had interrupted her.

"Miss Flint," he called out, "I wanted to say a word to you before you went."

"Yes," she said, stopping and turning to him.

He paused a moment before speaking, as he looked into her face.

"I don't wonder this has upset you a little," he said; "a reaction always comes afterwards-even with the strongest of us."

"I am all right," she replied, unconsciously repeating Hilary's words.

"How is Mr. Vane?"

"You have done a splendid thing," said the doctor, gravely. And he continued, after a moment: "It is Mr. Vane I wanted to speak to you about. He is an intimate friend, I believe, of your father's, as well as Mr. Flint's right-hand man in-in a business way in this State. Mr. Vane himself will not listen to reason. I have told him plainly that if he does not drop all business at once, the chances are ten to one that he will forfeit his life very shortly. I understand that there is a-a convention to be held at the capital the day after to-morrow, and that it is Mr. Vane's firm intention to attend it. I take the liberty of suggesting that you lay these facts before your father, as Mr. Flint probably has more influence with Hilary Vane than any other man. However," he added, seeing Victoria hesitate, "if there is any reason why you should not care to speak to Mr. Flint-"

"Oh, no," said Victoria; "I'll speak to him, certainly. I was going to ask you-have you thought of Mr. Austen Vane? He might be able to do something."

"Of course," said the doctor, after a moment, "it is an open secret that Austen and his father have-have, in short, never agreed. They are not now on speaking terms."

"Don't you think," asked Victoria, summoning her courage, "that Austen

Vane ought to be told?"

"Yes," the doctor repeated decidedly, "I am sure of it. Everybody who knows Austen Vane as I do has the greatest admiration for him. You probably remember him in that Meader case,-he isn't a man one would be likely to forget,-and I know that this quarrel with his father isn't of Austen's seeking."

"Oughtn't he to be told-at once?" said Victoria.

"Yes," said the doctor; "time is valuable, and we can't predict what Hilary will do. At any rate, Austen ought to know-but the trouble is, he's at Jenney's farm. I met him on the way out there just before your friend the Englishman caught me. And unfortunately I have a case which I cannot neglect. But I can send word to him."

"I know where Jenney's farm is," said Victoria; "I'll drive home that way."

"Well," exclaimed Dr. Tredway, heartily, "that's good of you. Somebody who knows Hilary's situation ought to see him, and I can think of no better messenger than you."

And he helped her into the runabout.

Young Mr. Rangely being a gentleman, he refrained from asking Victoria questions on the drive out of Ripton, and expressed the greatest willingness to accompany her on this errand and to see her home afterwards. He had been deeply impressed, but he felt instinctively that after such a serious occurrence, this was not the time to continue to give hints of his admiration. He had heard in England that many American women whom he would be likely to meet socially were superficial and pleasure-loving; and Arthur Rangely came of a family which had long been cited as a vindication of a government by aristocracy,-a family which had never shirked responsibilities. It is not too much to say that he had pictured Victoria among his future tenantry; she had appealed to him first as a woman, but the incident of the afternoon had revealed her to him, as it were, under fire.

They spoke quietly of places they both had visited, of people whom they knew in common, until they came to the hills-the very threshold of Paradise on that September evening. Those hills never failed to move Victoria, and they were garnished this evening in no earthly colours, -rose-lighted on the billowy western pasture slopes and pearl in the deep clefts of the streams, and the lordly form of Sawanec shrouded in indigo against a flame of orange. And orange fainted, by the subtlest of colour changes, to azure in which swam, so confidently, a silver evening star.

In silence they drew up before Mr. Jenney's ancestral trees, and through the deepening shadows beneath these the windows of the farm-house glowed with welcoming light. At Victoria's bidding Mr. Rangely knocked to ask for Austen Vane, and Austen himself answered the summons. He held a book in his hand, and as Rangely spoke she saw Austen's look turn quickly to her, and met it through the gathering gloom between them. In an instant he was at her side, looking up questioningly into her face, and the telltale blood leaped into hers. What must he think of her for coming again? She could not speak of her errand too quickly.

"Mr. Vane, I came to leave a message."

"Yes?" he said, and glanced at the broad-shouldered, well-groomed figure of Mr. Rangely, who was standing at a discreet distance.

"Your father has had an attack of some kind,-please don't be alarmed, he seems to be recovered now,-and I thought and Dr. Tredway thought you ought to know about it. The doctor could not leave Ripton, and I offered to come and tell you."

"An attack?" he repeated.

"Yes." Hilary and she related simply how she had found Hilary at Fairview, and how she had driven him home. But, during the whole of her recital, she could not rid herself of the apprehension that he was thinking her interference unwarranted, her coming an indelicate repetition of the other visit. As he stood there listening in the gathering dusk, she could not tell from his face what he thought. His expression, when serious, had a determined, combative, almost grim note in it, which came from a habit he had of closing his jaw tightly; and his eyes were like troubled skies through which there trembled an occasional flash of light.

Victoria had never felt his force so strongly as now, and never had he seemed more distant; at times-she had thought-she had had glimpses of his soul; to-night he was inscrutable, and never had she realized the power (which she bad known he must possess) of making himself so. And to her? Her pride forbade her recalling at that moment the confidences which had passed between them and which now seemed to have been so impossible. He was serious because he was listening to serious news-she told herself. But it was more than this: he had shut himself up, he was impenetrable. Shame seized her; yes, and anger; and shame again at the remembrance of her talk with Euphrasia-and anger once more. Could he think that she would make advances to tempt his honour, and risk his good opinion and her own?

Confidence is like a lute-string, giving forth sweet sounds in its perfection; there are none so discordant as when it snaps.

Victoria scarcely heard Austen's acknowledgments of her kindness, so perfunctory did they seem, so unlike the man she had known; and her own protestations that she had done nothing to merit his thanks were to her quite as unreal. She introduced him to the Englishman.

"Mr. Rangely has been good enough to come with me," she said.

"I've never seen anybody act with more presence of mind than Miss Flint," Rangely declared, as he shook Austen's hand. "She did just the right thing, without wasting any time whatever."

"I'm sure of it," said Austen, cordially enough. But to Victoria's keener ear, other tones which she had heard at other times were lacking. Nor could she, clever as she was, see the palpable reason standing before her!

"I say," said Rangely, as they drove away, "he strikes me as a remarkably sound chap, Miss Flint. There is something unusual about him, something clean cut."

"I've heard other people say so," Victoria replied. For the first time since she had known him, praise of Austen was painful to her. What was this curious attraction that roused the interest of all who came in contact with him? The doctor had it, Mr. Redbrook, Jabe Jenney,-even Hamilton Tooting, she remembered. And he attracted women as well as men -it must be so. Certainly her own interest in him-a man beyond the radius of her sphere-and their encounters had been strange enough! And must she go on all her life hearing praises of him? Of one thing she was sure-who was not?-that Austen Vane had a future. He was the type of man which is inevitably impelled into places of trust.

Manly men, as a rule, do not understand women. They humour them blindly, seek to comfort them-if they weep-with caresses, laugh with them if they have leisure, and respect their curious and unaccountable moods by keeping out of the way. Such a husband was Arthur Rangely destined to make; a man who had seen any number of women and understood none,-as wondrous mechanisms. He had merely acquired the faculty of appraisal, although this does not mean that he was incapable of falling in love.

Mr. Rangely could not account for the sudden access of gayety in Victoria's manner as they drove to Fairview through the darkness, nor did he try. He took what the gods sent him, and was thankful. When he reached Fairview he was asked to dinner, as he could not possibly get back to the Inn in time. Mr. Flint had gone to Sumner with the engineers, leaving orders to be met at the East Tunbridge station at ten; and Mrs. Flint, still convalescent, had dined in her sitting room. Victoria sat opposite her guest in the big dining room, and Mr. Rangely pronounced the occasion decidedly jolly. He had, he proclaimed, with the exception of Mr. Vane's deplorable accident, never spent a better day in his life.

Victoria wondered at her own spirits, which were feverish, as she listened to transatlantic gossip about girls she had known who had married Mr. Rangely's friends, and stories of Westminster and South Africa, and certain experiences of Mr. Rangely's at other places than Leith on the American continent, which he had grown sufficiently confidential to relate. At times, lifting her eyes to him as he sat smoking after dinner on the other side of the library fire, she almost doubted his existence. He had come into her life at one o'clock that day-it seemed an eternity since. And a subconscious voice, heard but not heeded, told her that in the awakening from this curious dream he would be associated in her memory with tragedy, just as a tune or a book or a game of cards reminds one of painful periods of one's existence. To-morrow the-episode would be a nightmare; to-night her one desire was to prolong it.

And poor Mr. Rangely little imagined the part he was playing-as little as he deserved it. Reluctant to leave, propriety impelled him to ask for a trap at ten, and it was half past before he finally made his exit from the room with a promise to pay his respects soon-very soon.

Victoria stood before the fire listening to the sound of the wheels gradually growing fainter, and her mind refused to work. Hanover Street, Mr. Jenney's farm-house, were unrealities too. Ten minutes later-if she had marked the interval-came the sound of wheels again, this time growing louder. Then she heard a voice in the hall, her father's voice.

"Towers, who was that?"

"A young gentleman, sir, who drove home with Miss Victoria. I didn't get his name, sir."

"Has Miss Victoria retired?"

"She's in the library, sir. Here are some telegrams, Mr. Flint."

Victoria heard her father tearing open the telegrams and walking towards the library with slow steps as he read them. She did not stir from her place before the fire. She saw him enter and, with a characteristic movement which had become almost habitual of late, crush the telegrams in front of him with both hands.

"Well, Victoria?" he said.

"Well, father?"

It was characteristic of him, too, that he should momentarily drop the conversation, unravel the ball of telegrams, read one, crush them once more,-a process that seemed to give him relief. He glanced at his daughter-she had not moved. Whatever Mr. Flint's original character may have been in his long-forgotten youth on the wind-swept hill farm in Truro, his methods of attack lacked directness now; perhaps a long business and political experience were responsible for this trait.

"Your mother didn't come down to dinner, I suppose."

"No," said Victoria.

Simpson tells me the young bull got loose and cut himself badly. He says it's the fault of the Eben Fitch you got me to hire."

"I don't believe it was Eben's fault-Simpson doesn't like him," Victoria replied.

"Simpson tells me Fitch drinks."

"Let a man get a bad name," said Victoria, "and Simpson will take care that he doesn't lose it." The unexpected necessity of defending one of her proteges aroused her. "I've made it a point to see Eben every day for the last three months, and he hasn't touched a drop. He's one of the best workers we have on the place."

"I've got too much on my mind to put up with that kind of thing," said Mr. Flint, "and I won't be worried here on the place. I can get capable men to tend cattle, at least. I have to put up with political rascals who rob and deceive me as soon as my back is turned, I have to put up with inefficiency and senility, but I won't have it at home."

"Fitch will be transferred to the gardener if you think best," she said.

It suddenly occurred to Victoria, in the light of a new discovery, that in the past her father's irritability had not extended to her. And this discovery, she knew, ought to have some significance, but she felt unaccountably indifferent to it. Mr. Flint walked to a window at the far end of the room and flung apart the tightly closed curtains before it.

"I never can get used to this new-fangled way of shutting everything up tight," he declared. "When I lived in Centre Street, I used to read with the curtains up every night, and nobody ever shot me." He stood looking out at the starlight for awhile, and turned and faced her again.

"I haven't seen much of you this summer, Victoria," he remarked.

"I'm sorry, father. You know I always like to walk with you every day you are here." He had aroused her sufficien

tly to have a distinct sense that this was not the time to refer to the warning she had given him that he was working too hard. But he was evidently bent on putting this construction on her answer.

"Several times I have asked for you, and you have been away," he said.

"If you had only let me know, I should have made it a point to be at home."

"How can I tell when these idiots will give me any rest?" he asked. He crushed the telegrams again, and came down the room and stopped in front of her. "Perhaps there has been a particular reason why you have not been at home as much as usual."

"A particular reason?" she repeated, in genuine surprise.

"Yes," he said; "I have been hearing things which, to put it mildly, have astonished me."

"Hearing things?"

"Yes," he exclaimed. "I may be busy, I may be harassed by tricksters and bunglers, but I am not too busy not to care something about my daughter's doings. I expect them to deceive me, Victoria, but I pinned my faith somewhere. I pinned it on you. On you, do you understand?"

She raised her head for the first time and looked at him, with her lips quivering. But she did not speak.

"Ever since you were a child you have been everything to me, all I had to fly to. I was always sure of one genuine, disinterested love-and that was yours. I was always sure of hearing the truth from your lips."

"Father!" she cried.

He seemed not to hear the agonized appeal in her voice. Although he spoke in his usual tones, Augustus Flint was, in fact, beside himself.

"And now," he said, "and now I learn that you have been holding clandestine meetings with a man who is my enemy, with a man who has done me more harm than any other single individual, with a man whom I will not have in my house-do you understand? I can only say that before to-night, I gave him credit for having the decency not to enter it, not to sit down at my table."

Victoria turned away from him, and seized the high oak shelf of the mantel with both hands. He saw her shoulders rising and falling as her breath came deeply, spasmodically-like sobbing. But she was not sobbing as she turned again and looked into his face. Fear was in her eye, and the high courage to look: fear and courage. She seemed to be looking at another man, at a man who was not her father. And Mr. Flint, despite his anger, vaguely interpreting her meaning, was taken aback. He had never seen anybody with such a look. And the unexpected quiet quality of her voice intensified his strange sensation.

"A Mr. Rangely, an Englishman, who is staying at the Leith Inn, was here to dinner to-night. He has never been here before."

"Austen Vane wasn't here to-night?"

"Mr. Vane has never been in this house to my knowledge but once, and you knew more about that meeting than I do."

And still Victoria spoke quietly, inexplicably so to Mr. Flint-and to herself. It seemed to her that some other than she were answering with her voice, and that she alone felt. It was all a part of the nightmare, all unreal, and this was not her father; nevertheless, she suffered now, not from anger alone, nor sorrow, nor shame for him and for herself, nor disgust, nor a sense of injustice, nor cruelty-but all of these played upon a heart responsive to each with a different pain.

And Mr. Flint, halted for the moment by her look and manner, yet goaded on by a fiend of provocation which had for months been gathering strength, and which now mastered him completely, persisted. He knew not what he did or said.

"And you haven't seen him to-day, I suppose," he cried.

"Yes, I have seen him to-day."

"Ah, you have! I thought as much. Where did you meet him to-day?"

Victoria turned half away from him, raised a hand to the mantel-shelf again, and lifted a foot to the low brass fender as she looked down into the fire. The movement was not part of a desire to evade him, as he fancied in his anger, but rather one of profound indifference, of profound weariness-the sunless deeps of sorrow. And he thought her capable of deceiving him! He had been her constant companion from childhood, and knew only the visible semblance of her face, her form, her smile. Her sex was the sex of subterfuge.

"I went to the place where he is living, and asked for him," she said, "and he came out and spoke to me."

"You?" he repeated incredulously. There was surely no subterfuge in her tone, but an unreal, unbelievable note which his senses seized, and to which he clung. "You! My daughter!"

"Yes," she answered, "I, your daughter. I suppose you think I am shameless. It is true-I am."

Mr. Flint was utterly baffled. He was at sea. He had got beyond the range of his experience; defence, denial, tears, he could have understood and coped with. He crushed the telegrams into a tighter ball, sought for a footing, and found a precarious one.

"And all this has been going on without my knowledge, when you knew my sentiments towards the man?"

"Yes," she said. "I do not know what you include in that remark, but I have seen him many times as many times, perhaps, as you have heard about."

He wheeled, and walked over to a cabinet between two of the great windows and stood there examining a collection of fans which his wife had bought at a famous sale in Paris. Had he suddenly been asked the question, he could not have said whether they were fans or beetles. And it occurred to Victoria, as her eyes rested on his back, that she ought to be sorry for him-but wasn't, somehow. Perhaps she would be to-morrow. Mr. Flint looked at the fans, and an obscure glimmering of the truth came to him that instead of administering a severe rebuke to the daughter he believed he had known all his life, he was engaged in a contest with the soul of a woman he had never known. And the more she confessed, the more she apparently yielded, the more impotent he seemed, the tighter the demon gripped him. Obstacles, embarrassments, disappointments, he had met early in his life, and he had taken them as they came. There had followed a long period when his word had been law. And now, as age came on, and he was meeting with obstacles again, he had lost the magic gift of sweeping them aside; the growing certainty that he was becoming powerless haunted him night and day. Unbelievably strange, however, it was that the rays of his anger by some subconscious process had hovered from the first about the son of Hilary Vane, and were now, by the trend of event after event, firmly focussed there.

He left the cabinet abruptly and came back to Victoria.

She was standing in the same position.

"You have spared me something," he said. "He has apparently undermined me with my own daughter. He has evidently given you an opinion of me which is his. I think I can understand why you have not spoken of these -meetings."

"It is an inference that I expected," said Victoria. Then she lifted her head and looked at him, and again he could not read her expression, for a light burned in her eyes that made them impenetrable to him,-a light that seemed pitilessly to search out and reveal the dark places and the weak places within him which he himself had not known were there. Could there be another standard by which men and women were measured and judged?

Mr. Flint snapped his fingers, and turned and began to pace the room.

"It's all pretty clear," he said; "there's no use going into it any farther. You believe, with the rest of them, that I'm a criminal and deserve the penitentiary. I don't care a straw about the others," he cried, snapping his fingers again. "And I suppose, if I'd had any sense, I might have expected it from you, too, Victoria-though you are my daughter."

He was aware that her eyes followed him.

"How many times have you spoken with Austen Vane?" she asked.

"Once," he exclaimed; "that was enough. Once."

"And he gave you the impression," she continued slowly, "that he was deceitful, and dishonourable, and a coward? a man who would say things behind your back that he dared not say to your face? who desired reward for himself at any price, and in any manner? a man who would enter your house and seek out your daughter and secretly assail your character?"

Mr. Flint stopped in the middle of the floor.

"And you tell me he has not done these things?"

"Suppose I did tell you so," said Victoria, "would you believe me? I have no reason to think that you would. I am your daughter, I have been your most intimate companion, and I had the right to think that you should have formed some estimate of my character. Suppose I told you that Austen Vane has avoided me, that he would not utter a word against you or in favour of himself? Suppose I told you that I, your daughter, thought there might be two sides to the political question that is agitating you, and wished in fairness to hear the other side, as I intended to tell you when you were less busy? Suppose I told you that Austen Vane was the soul of honour, that he saw your side and presented it as ably as you have presented it? that he had refrained in many matters which might have been of advantage to him-although I did not hear of them from him-on account of his father? Would you believe me?"

"And suppose I told you," cried Mr. Flint-so firmly fastened on him was the long habit of years of talking another down, "suppose I told you that this was the most astute and the craftiest course he could take? I've always credited him with brains. Suppose I told you that he was intriguing now, as he has been all along, to obtain the nomination for the governorship? Would you believe me?"

"No," answered Victoria, quietly.

Mr. Flint went to the lamp, unrolled the ball of telegrams, seized one and crossed the room quickly, and held it out to her. His hand shook a little.

"Read that!" he said.

She read it: "Estimate that more than half of delegates from this section pledged to Henderson will go to Austen Vane when signal is given in convention. Am told on credible authority same is true of other sections, including many of Hunt's men and Crewe's. This is the result of quiet but persistent political work I spoke about. BILLINGS."

She handed the telegram back to her father in silence. "Do you believe it now?" he demanded exultantly.

"Who is the man whose name is signed to that message?" she asked.

Mr. Flint eyed her narrowly.

"What difference does that make?" he demanded.

"None," said Victoria. But a vision of Mr. Billings rose before her. He had been pointed out to her as the man who had opposed Austen in the Meader suit. "If the bishop of the diocese signed it, I would not believe that Austen Vane had anything to do with the matter."

"Ah, you defend him!" cried Mr. Flint. "I thought so-I thought so. I take off my hat to him, he is a cleverer man even than I. His own father, whom he has ruined, comes up here and defends him."

"Does Hilary Vane defend him?" Victoria asked curiously.

"Yes," said Mr. Flint, beside himself; "incredible as it may seem, he does. I have Austen Vane to thank for still another favour-he is responsible for Hilary's condition to-day. He has broken him down-he has made him an imbecile. The convention is scarcely thirty-six hours off, and Hilary is about as fit to handle it as-as Eben Fitch. Hilary, who never failed me in his life!"

Victoria did not speak for a moment, and then she reached out her hand quickly and laid it on his that still held the telegram. A lounge stood on one side of the fireplace, and she drew him gently to it, and he sat down at her side. His acquiescence to her was a second nature, and he was once more bewildered. His anger now seemed to have had no effect upon her whatever.

"I waited up to tell you about Hilary Vane, father," she said gently. "He has had a stroke, which I am afraid is serious."

"A stroke!" cried Mr. Flint, "Why didn't you tell me? How do you know?"

Victoria related how she had found Hilary coming away from Fairview, and what she had done, and the word Dr. Tredway had sent.

"Good God!" cried Mr. Flint, "he won't be able to go to the convention!" And he rose and pressed the electric button. "Towers," he said, when the butler appeared, "is Mr. Freeman still in my room? Tell him to telephone to Ripton at once and find out how Mr. Hilary Vane is. They'll have to send a messenger. That accounts for it," he went on, rather to himself than to Victoria, and he began to pace the room once more; "he looked like a sick man when he was here. And who have we got to put in his place? Not a soul!"

He paced awhile in silence. He appeared to have forgotten Victoria.

"Poor Hilary!" he said again, "poor Hilary! I'll go down there the first thing in the morning."

Another silence, and then Mr. Freeman, the secretary, entered.

"I telephoned to Dr. Tredway's, Mr. Flint. I thought that would be quickest. Mr. Vane has left home. They don't know where he's gone."

"Left home! It's impossible!" and he glanced at Victoria, who had risen to her feet. "There must be some mistake."

"No, sir. First I got the doctor, who said that Mr. Vane was gone-at the risk of his life. And then I talked to Mr. Austen Vane himself, who was there consulting with the doctor. It appears that Mr. Hilary Vane had left home by eight o'clock, when Mr. Austen Vane got there."

"Hilary's gone out of his head," exclaimed Mr. Flint. "This thing has unhinged him. Here, take these telegrams. No, wait a minute, I'll go out there. Call up Billings, and see if you can get Senator Whitredge."

He started out of the room, halted, and turned his head and hesitated.

"Father," said Victoria, "I don't think Hilary Vane is out of his mind."

"You don't?" he said quickly. "Why?"

By some unaccountable change in the atmosphere, of which Mr. Flint was unconscious, his normal relation to his daughter had been suddenly reestablished. He was giving ear, as usual, to her judgment.

"Did Hilary Vane tell you he would go to the convention?" she asked.

"Yes." In spite of himself, he had given the word an apologetic inflection.

"Then he has gone already," she said. "I think, if you will telephone a little later to the State capital, you will find that he is in his room at the Pelican Hotel."

"By thunder, Victoria!" he ejaculated, "you may be right. It would be like him."

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